The day I learned of Michael Ratner’s passing, one year ago today, I had to travel to Richmond, Virginia to argue an appeal related to one of the Abu Ghraib torture suits CCR brought against an odious private military contractor. Though we knew it was coming, the news was deeply personal and painful; it was especially hard to be away from New York and my CCR colleagues who had gathered to commune in Michael’s memory. At the same time, there was some purpose to my travel; it was Michael who brought these cases to CCR in 2003, as he had so many of the most radical, far-reaching, and creative human rights cases in CCR’s fifty year history. When I rose to deliver my appellate argument, more anxious than usual, I decided at the last moment for a twist on the conventional appellate introduction: “May it please the court, and in loving memory of a heroic human rights lawyer, Michael Ratner, who passed yesterday, my name is Baher Azmy.” I sought to do for Michael what he had done for hundreds of clients – victims of government repression and human rights atrocities all over the world – to bring his humanity into the courtroom.
It was a small gesture that was compelled by his decade-long mentorship of me. I came to know him first in arguably his most iconic role – as the leader of the movement to respond to the human rights crisis engineered by the Bush administration following 9/11, with its practices of torture, extraordinary rendition, and indefinite, incommunicado detention at Guantánamo Bay. As everyone well knows, it was Michael, who with a couple of other courageous lawyers, insisted on challenging, only months after the 9/11 attacks, the decision to create a military prison, outside the law, in Guantánamo Bay; eventually, others would recognize the correctness of his early political vision, and rush to join CCR’s effort to represent men detained there and challenge the grotesque excesses of the Bush administration. We called ourselves the Guantánamo Bay Bar Association; one commentator called it the greatest mass defense effort in U.S. history.
More recently, after I took over his former role as Legal Director to CCR, my relationship transformed from hero to friend and mentor. I marveled at his bravery in challenging repressive systems of power; Michael went after dictators, torturers, corporations, and the military, and he challenged the impunity of government officials everywhere. I observed his natural solidarity for people and communities impacted by such repressive systems, from prisoners, to families, to victims of torture and U.S. militarism. I relished his continued wide-eyed wonder about CCR’s work on issues important to him, and his genuine love for mentorship: he had an affinity and a drive for the next generation of radical activists and lawyers. I have missed his guidance, energy, and indignancy as we try to orient our work in the Trump era. He would no doubt be horrified by the creeping fascism emerging, but also heartened by the mass mobilization of people, standing up for each other and against the ugly menace of Trump state power. He was a lawyer for The People, driven by the sincerest drive for justice and love
Many moving tributes flowed about Michael in the days that followed his death, from major media, academics, civil rights champions, and family members. On that evening in Richmond, too distracted to prepare for my hearing, I assumed the sober duty to announce to the Guantánamo Bay Bar Association – the movement of now radicalized lawyers he created and loved – of Michael’s passing:
Having had the immense privilege of working with Michael Ratner for over 12 years on the Guantánamo cases and as Legal Director at CCR, I can say he was the most visionary, principled, strategic, fearless, passionate – and deeply humane and humble – advocate I have ever come across and likely ever will. I almost cannot comprehend how someone can be so vigorous in his challenge to power and yet so sweet and generous and unassuming— except to say that in his private life he modeled the broader world he wanted to see: one driven by love and kindness and respect for human dignity. To me and so many others of his generation, and especially the countless young lawyers and activists at CCR and beyond that he saw to it to mentor, generously and unself-consciously — Michael Ratner was a hero.
And still is.